What conservatives can learn from Jeremy Corbyn

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What conservatives can learn from Jeremy Corbyn

Bruce Newsome believes Jeremy Corbyn’s rise offers many lessons, including to small ‘c’ conservatives who can study his rise and recognise the opportunity to consolidate their position by offering Trump style populism without Trump’s contradictions.

Andrew Sullivan has thoroughly and fairly analysed Jeremy Corbyn’s road to an even-chance of taking over the British government with a Marxist agenda. New York magazine should be credited for giving so much space. Frankly, most Britons should read it, because a British-born American has surpassed any resident of the British media in capturing the momentousness of the “Momentum” movement.

Corbyn’s rise doesn’t just discredit Tony Blair’s New Labour, it discredits the entire British elite for decades of pushing a liberal consensus that has made Britain more liberal but less democratic.

Sullivan considers the implications for only liberal democrats, and considers how the Democratic Party can learn from Corbyn to revive its prospects. Now consider the implications for conservatives, and how conservatives too could learn from Corbyn: they could consolidate by offering Trump’s populism without Trump’s contradictions.

Britain’s Conservative Party is heading for a populist shift, confirming – not challenging – the shift in American conservatism.

After Margaret Thatcher, every British premier has fulfilled a stereotype epitomized by Tony Blair: a dishonest, remote, two-faced turncoat, who does the opposite of what most Britons want, while spinning minority interests as majority interests, using a cracking voice and the rhetoric of social justice to suggest a humility and vulnerability that isn’t real.

More than two years ago, Theresa May was appointed prime minister in succession to David Cameron, who was ridiculed for offering nothing new, for trying to ape Tony Blair, for pushing the liberal consensus under a conservative label (what he termed “compassionate conservatism”), for faking a campaign to reform the EU, for falsely claiming to have won a special status for Britain in the EU, then calling a referendum on whether to remain in the EU, losing that referendum, and resigning immediately rather than staying to sort out the mess.

Cameron’s successor is no break from the past. Theresa May was appointed by parliamentary colleagues instead of the larger party membership – let alone the general franchise. Within a year, she called a general election (June 2017) in the hope of gaining a popular mandate, only to lose her working majority and to confirm Jeremy Corbyn’s legitimacy as the leader of the opposition, just after he had run out of parliamentary colleagues prepared to serve him.

Theresa May carries forward a compassionate conservatism that attempts to please everybody by doing nothing, by identifying with conservatives while parroting the liberal consensus, by competing with Labour to spend more on the NHS and international aid and to penalize home-owners and savers, by inventing crises of racism and sexism without admitting to identity politics, by keeping Britain tied to EU law and principles while pretending to Brexit.

May is a Remainer pretending to deliver Brexit. She has procrastinated, obfuscated, and conceded until her Brexit is as close to remaining as she can get while still pretending otherwise. Her Brexit policy (which she dumped on the Cabinet at Chequers a month ago as the only option) breaks with her party manifesto and her own “red lines.” It makes impossible, contradictory promises (such as: keeping borders open while ending free movement), is hugely unpopular, prompted a rash of resignations, and revitalized a movement to unseat her. Yet she keeps pretending that it’s the only option, and has reawakened the “Project Fear” of the referendum campaign by pretending that resistance will end in a collapse of trade and employment. She is aligned with the barmy Brexit-bashers of the left, whose latest claim is that if we don’t retain the European Court of Justice then no other country would extradite criminals to Britain’s “illiberal” rump justice system.

The parliamentary Conservative Party’s attempts to cling to elite interests are failing. Its next leader will be a populist, although not necessarily a right-wing nut-case, contrary to what the loudest classes keep warning. Corbyn is both populist and Marxist.

While I don’t advocate for populism without qualifications, I do advocate for democracy, and I do see a crisis in Western democracies led by elites that keep ignoring the majority, over-representing the loudest classes, betraying their own manifestos, and out-sourcing their responsibilities to quasi non-government organizations (QUANGOs) and supranational institutions.

The term “populism” has become a slur on whatever is popular but inconsistent with what the loudest classes want.

Boris Johnson (the favourite to replace May, once he resigned as Foreign Secretary) is a populist in the sense that he is aligned with the majority on such fundamental issues as Brexit, sovereignty, and border control. His comments this week against the burqa also are popular, even though the loudest classes want to prosecute his comments as hate crimes. He is admired by the majority as a straight-talking and principled rather than poll-chasing politician. Yet his parliamentary colleagues, including Theresa May, want to indulge in unelectable self-reflection about whether the Conservative Party is Islamophobic.

Other potential leaders are openly populist. My interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg makes clear that he is happy to be called a populist in the sense of delivering what the people want, and of making politicians accountable to the people for what they deliver. He stated that the Conservative Party should learn from the Labour Party, although he himself thinks he has no chance of becoming leader, given that most of his parliamentary colleagues wouldn’t vote for him (as an intelligent Brexiteer, fiscal conservative, and social conservative). At times, parliamentary Conservatives seem to have a problem with conservatism, such as Anna Soubry’s stabbing verbal assault on Rees-Mogg’s “gold-plated pension” and “inherited wealth.”

The parliamentary Conservative Party hasn’t a good track record of appointing leaders that the voters want: it’s had six leaders in the last 20 years, of which only three were prime ministers, only two ever won a working majority in a general election, and none won as strong a majority as Margaret Thatcher – who was deselected by (guess who?) her parliamentary colleagues, before the rest of her party could take a shot – let alone the electorate.

The Conservative Party should follow the Labour Party’s shift in opening leadership elections to party members, so that its leader is more in touch with what the people want than what the elite claim they want.

When Conservatives choose a leader aligned with majority interests, Corbyn will look as ludicrously unelectable as he did when he took over the Labour Party in September 2015.

As long as conservatives don’t offer their constituents a majoritarian leader, constituents will turn to outsiders, such as Trump, whose driving is crazed, but whose passengers are not.

Sullivan’s advice to liberal democrats is only partly correct. Yes, they should improve inequality, stand up to big banks, and protect against unfair trade. They should stop demonising their opponents and glorifying globalization and institutionalization. I don’t agree that they should glorify higher taxes and universal healthcare. I especially don’t agree that they should continue to bias young and minority voters – this is just identity politics.

Identity politics is the opposite of majoritarianism. For stable politics, we should challenge the consensus that minorities are always to be championed over the majority, or that paying attention to the majority is disreputable “populism.”

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    Bruce Newsome
    Bruce Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of California Berkeley
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